Creatures of habit

I forgave the driver who took off while the light was still red. And the shopper with more than 10 items in the 10 items or less lane. The traffic light supervisor forgave the drivers who disobeyed his new creation.

When I worked in Cambridge and waited at the light on Memorial Drive at River Street, cars ahead of me sometimes took off in the middle of the red.

Those drivers weren’t intentionally running the light. They thought they were getting a quick start on the green. They knew a green light was coming because cross street traffic just got a red light.

Except eastbound traffic had a leading protected turn phase. Our westbound light was red for about 15 more seconds. Oops.

Drivers who see red for cross traffic assume their green is imminent, because that’s how it usually works.

Drivers who see red in front of them assume that oncoming traffic has a red light too, because that’s how it usually works. After waiting in the intersection for a minute, it’s finally safe to turn left. But what if oncoming traffic still has a green light? That’s called a “yellow trap”, and federal rules strongly discourage it because drivers make mistakes.

That guy in Star Market last March hadn’t noticed that the store moved the express lanes. Who pays attention to those signs? You read them once and next time you already know what they say.

I remember a story about police pulling over an erratic driver. They let her go after hearing her explanation: there had been raised manhole covers in the road so long that she habitually avoided them even after construction was over.

Hull, UK posted its main roads at 40 mph… except one of them. That looked like all the rest except the speed limit was 30. With no signs. That was where the speed camera watched.

In England it’s illegal to post redundant 30 mph signs, to preempt complaints by drivers arguing that a sign should have been posted for clarity. By law, drivers are expected to be robots with superhuman vision and memory, counting the street lights to determine if national or built-up speed limits apply. (In the USA we use building spacing to determine unposted limits; in the UK they use street light spacing.)

In America, camera enforcement also targets roads with surprisingly low speed limits. And intersections where the light turns red surprisingly quickly.

Predatory enforcement relies on the unexpected, the straight, wide highway where the speed limit drops to 30 because some dotted line on a map was crossed. Politicians need these surprises. Some are after revenue, some just like compelling people to obey.

The policy of many DOTs is to refuse to correct improperly-set speed limits. They don’t want to upset people. Drivers aren’t people. Our opinions don’t count.

But the expressions on our faces caught on camera are priceless.

Kidding, of course. There is a price, usually about $100, and usually there is no face. It’s not that we’re too ugly to photograph; but they don’t want to. Same deal as the UK — if there is no picture, we can’t say “that wasn’t me driving.”

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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